Italy’s Indigenous Varieties – Part One

Food & Drink

While I write about wines from the world over, Italian wines are my specialty, and let’s face it, my favorite. Much of that has to do with the amazing variety of the country’s offerings, most of which are based on indigenous varieties. As far as I’m considered, there are enough examples – excellent ones at that – of Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and a few other varieties one can find from numerous countries. But the joy – or the curse, depending on your point of view – of Italian viticulture is the work realized with local varieties that in many instances are not found anywhere else in the world, or in some instances, are not planted outside a small district in one specific Italian region.

I recently wrote an article about Italy’s best white wines, most of which are produced from indigenous varieties; these include Vermentino, Verdicchio, Arneis, Greco, Fiano and Friulano. There are dozens more and when you start to include red varieties such as Nebbiolo, Aglianico, Dolcetto and Nerello Mascalese, you are dealing with several hundred such grape types.

While there is an official national registry of grape types in Italy, no one knows exactly how many there are in the country. It’s been estimated that there are approximately 300 indigenous varieties currently used in production throughout Italy, but there may be as many as 2000, perhaps even 3000 different varieties in existence. Some of these are extremely rare, consisting of only a few acres, and others, thought to have been extinct, have only recently been found in a small field somewhere off the beaten path.

I’d like to briefly discuss several dozen of these varieties, both red and white. I’ll mention the famous ones, such as Sangiovese and Nebbiolo with just a few words, while I’ll spend a bit more time on varieties, such as Grignolino, Coda di Volpe and Oseleta, that are not that well known. I’ll mention the regions or specific areas where these varieties are planted, and the wines that are made from them, with a few recommended producers. Get ready to discover a world of wine grapes you may have not realized existed! (Note: I certainly can’t cover every indigenous Italian variety in this space, but I’ll write about several dozen, so this is the first in a multi-part series.)

Aglianico (red) – Aglianico is the most famous red variety of Campania, and is the principal red variety of Taurasi, one of Italy’s greatest and longest lived red wines. Plantings of this grape type date back thousands of years when Greek colonists first cultivated this variety in Campania; indeed the name of the variety is thought by some to have derived from the word hellenico, meaning “Greek” in Italian, though many dispute this thinking.

What is not disputed, however, is the quality of the wines produced from Aglianico. A combination of ripe black cherry along with notes of bitter dark chocolate, the wines are sort of a baker’s delight, if you will. Aglianico has rich, powerful tannins, and the most complex versions of Aglianico-based wines, notably Taurasi, can drink well for more than two decades; indeed, the greatest Taurasi from the celebrated producer Mastroberardino are in beautiful shape at 40 or even 50 years of age. Also look for great examples of Taurasi from renowned producers such as Luigi Tecce, Antonio Caggiano, Feudi di San Gregorio and Terredora.

Another excellent example of a rich Aglianico-based red is Aglianico del Taburno, from the province of Benevento in Campania. Though not as intense as Taurasi, the best examples of Aglianico del Taburno can drink well for 10-15 years; look for offerings from Fontanavecchia and Fattoria La Rivolta, among others.

Aglianico is also a major variety of the neighboring region of Basilicata, most notably in Aglianico del Vulture, the finest regional red. Best producers of this wine include Terre degli Svevi, Grifalco, Elena Fucci and Paternoster.

There are also Aglianico-based wines that are made in a more approachable style, and are meant for drinking as soon as three or four years after the vintage; a great example of this is “Rubrato” from Feudi di San Gregorio. Many of these wines are labeled as Aglianico Irpinia (DOC) Aglianico Campania or Aglianico Beneventano (IGT); along with the Rubrato, there are notable offerings from Mastroberardino, Donnachiara and Di Meo.

Arneis (white) – Arneis is one of the most widely recognized white varieties in the Piedmont region today, but a little more than 50 years ago, it was practically extinct. The variety was so little thought of by local farmers that they planted it between rows of Nebbiolo, to attract birds looking for a sweet treat.

Today, Arneis, especially in the Roero district, is a highly successful variety, as Roero Arneis has become a staple among Piedmont’s white wines; dry, and generally aged without any wood, the wines offer flavors of pear and melon, with notes of almond and subtle herbal character in the finish. While the standard belief is that these wines are best enjoyed within 3-5 years of the vintage, numerous examples do age as long as a decade. Best producers include Malvirà; Deltetto; Marco Porello; Giuseppe Negro; Monchiero Carbone; Vietti and Bruno Giacosa.

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Biancolella (white) – Biancolella is a white variety planted near the sea in Campania, most notably on the island of Ischia. The variety has high acidity and offers aromas and flavors of lemon, citrus and candied fruit; the wines have a saltiness and distinct minerality; the wines are generally not oak aged. Biancolella is also used in blended whites from producers in the Costa d’Amalfi zone. Best examples of Biancolella from Ischia include those from Pietratorcia, Casa d’Ambra and Cenatiempo.

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Brachetto (red) – Brachetto is planted in a few districts in the Piedmont region, most notably Asti, where Brachetto d’Acqui (named for the town of Acqui Terme) is produced. This is a lightly sparkling (frizzante) red that has a delicate touch of sweetness; think of it as a red version of Moscato d’Asti, with its gentle character and low alcohol (about 5.5%). This wine is known as Birbet in the Roero district, as the term Brachetto d’Acqui cannot be used in this zone. Top examples of Brachetto d’Acqui are produced by Braida, Marenco, and Banfi. For Birbet, look for Malvirà and Marco Porello.

There is also a passito version of Brachetto, made from grapes that are naturally dried (often on wooden racks). Best examples are from Marenco, Vite Colte and Bragagnolo.

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